“Good for me, bad for them.” These were the words my friend and student Zehra, a 40-year-old mother of three, spoke to me as we sat together in her cramped apartment in Newport News, Virginia, 14 years ago and watched the words “Crisis in Kosovo” flash across the television screen.
It was a memory I thought was long forgotten until my European travels took me to the Dalmatian Coast of the former Yugoslavia where Zehra once lived a couple of days ago. Once the scene of ethnic cleansing on a scale not seen since the era of the Khmer Rouge, the multiple nation states carved out of the country Tito once held together by force has few signs of the conflicts that dominated news screens through much of the 1990s.
The otherworldly scene I watched that day flickering on the screen of Zehra’s television of Kosovars fleeing their homeland in overcrowded trains or cluttered into muddy fields without food or shelter was not unfamiliar to Zehra, a native of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who, through some act of fate I’ve yet to understand, became my English student – my most dedicated one, I might add.
As part of my graduate school training in teaching English as a second language, I was required to tutor someone. Having followed the conflict in the Balkans since I was a high school student and then again as a college student when my boyfriend served aboard a carrier in the Adriatic Sea, I chose to tutor a family of Bosnian refugees.
It was supposed to be a two-month endeavor. Somehow the experience moved beyond grad school project, and I became the Sulejmanovics’ private tutor and only American friend for nearly four years.
English is one of the world’s most complicated languages, and teaching concepts like silent “e’s” and diphthongs to a family whose native Serbo-Croatian language is entirely phonetic represented an unusual challenge. And often, the confusing, inaccurate Bosnian-English dictionary I relied on when nothing else seemed to work only compounded my difficulties.
But the Sulejmanovics were more patient with me than I was with them. They laughed at themselves and at me when I tried to repeat the Bosnian words they attempted with little success to teach me. They showered me every visit with huge meals and introduced me to cheese burek and Bosnian style baklava. Always Zehra cooked in the style of the old country, keeping a 25-pound bag of flour in her kitchen pantry.
Their generosity to me was boundless, even when they had so little
For Zehra, seeing the Kosovars on TV that evening made her relive a nightmare past that I could neither begin to comprehend nor successfully console.
“It’s just the same,” she said to me, watching the terror-stricken faces of mothers with crying children. “The same.”
Zehra curled her arms to her breast and then with quivering lips described to me how Serbian police forced her family to abandon their home in Srebrenica, how she walked over the mountains in the snow with her youngest son in her arms.
“Mirsad,” she said, referring to her now pre-school age boy, “was only nine months old,” She began to cry. “Nine months old!”
She remembered bombs falling day and night, and her middle son Nedzad told me about the Serbian tanks rolling into town.
After leaving Srebrenica, the family lived in Tuzla for a time in a house with 25 other refugees, sharing one room with four other family members.
Understandably, she called her two-bedroom apartment in Newport News “big.” Many of her neighbors down the dingy apartment hallway were refugees also. Some were Serbs, and she felt no malice for them. One was her dearest friend.
As is so often the case in war, those most injured by it have the least interest or investment in it.
When I last saw her, Zehra was working in a camera factory alongside her husband, Sevad, a former teacher with an astounding grasp of geography. When Sevad, who felt out of place in theses strange surroundings where everyone seems to have money and where women are often as powerful as men, talked once of going home to Bosnia, Zehra clutched Mirsad to her and said she would stay in the United States, no matter what.
And she looked at me with soft brown eyes and then planted a kiss on Mirsad’s head – the baby she thought would never survive to attend American kindergarten.
Her gratitude to the twist of fate or act of God that brought her here was boundless, as was her devotion to those who helped her.
When I attended a parent-teacher conference with Zehra one evening and sat beside her as the teacher gave us glowing reports of Mirsad’s progress, Zehra looked at me, squeezed my knee, and said quietly, “My teacher.”
Weeks later, as she practiced the conjugation of English verbs with me, she said again with that affectionate and unforgettable smile, “I love my teacher.”
When Zehra came to the United States, she had only an eighth-grade education, could not speak a word of English, and had no employment skills. After four years of tutoring from her imperfect private teacher, she was outstripping her more educated husband in her understanding and speaking of the English language and her confidence in the new American landscape.
Until this week, Bosnia-Herzegovina seemed very far away to me, having long been absent from American television screens. It had dissipated from the radar the way war, conflict, and misery always do. Whether or not the lessons (if there were indeed any) from the wars in the Balkans stick remains to be seen. Prejudice, like family heirlooms, can be passed from generation to generation.
But not for Zehra. If indeed she had any prejudices against neighbors of differing faiths and ethnicities in Bosnia, they fell away when she landed on American soil. With survival often comes wisdom.
That Zehra came to smile again and think of mundane things like what to buy at the grocery store and what color to dye her hair taught me something I will never forget – that while there may be some things on this earth worth dying for, there are far more for which to live.